Longtime Styx producer Gary Loizzo joins the band onstage and gives a performance for the ages.

by Mike Mettler

photo by Jason Powell

It’s less than 10 minutes before Styx hits the stage at the Hollywood Casino Ampitheatre in Tinley Park, Illinois on September 5, and Def Leppard vocalist Joe Elliott has just met up with the band in the hallway outside their dressing room to offer some pre-show encouragement. With a wry grin, Joe hollers at keyboardist/vocalist Lawrence Gowan, “Hey Lawrence, don’t forget the words!” Gowan cocks an eyebrow, looks at Joe, and replies, “You’re so inspiring!”

It’s this level of playful camaraderie that’s been in constant effect all throughout the initial legs of one of the summer’s hottest tours, which features Tesla in the opening slot, Styx in the middle spot, and Def Leppard headlining. Observes Def Leppard drummer Rick Allen, “The tour for me has been great so far. There seems to be some sort of resurgence — I’m not sure what’s happening, but there does seem to be more people coming to the shows.” Do you think it’s because the younger generations are discovering and responding to this kind of music? “That may be it,” agrees Allen. “My 18-year-old daughter, she went through every sort of music, but now, whenever I get into her car, she’s listening to classic rock. It’s like, ‘Wow! Maybe they have discovered real music!’ The three bands that are out there on this tour — this is the epitomy. This is as good as it gets.”

Adds Tesla vocalist Jeff Keith, “It’s awesome, man! It’s such a great show, such a great team-up. We’ve toured with Def Leppard in the round [in 1987], and I grew up listening to Styx on 8-track tapes in Georgetown, California. The labels were all bubbled off of them, so I didn’t even know what Tommy Shaw and those guys looked like until much later! And now we get to tour with them too — we’re so loving it!”

Meanwhile, backstage at Tinley Park, a metal door opens and the Styx six — which includes original bassist Chuck Panozzo, who’s sporting dark shades and a sharp suit (he wouldn’t have missed a hometown show for anything) — make their way down a concrete ramp toward the designated gathering spot behind the stage itself. On his way down the ramp, vocalist/guitarist Tommy Shaw sings the title phrase of the evening’s surprise setlist addition (more on that in a bit). As the band converges, the pre-show music can be heard echoing over the PA, with Paul Butterfield singing ever-so-appropriately in between his signature blues harmonica blasts, “I was born in Chicago in nineteen-and-forty-one.”

Bassist/vocalist Ricky Phillips gets set nearby while drummer Todd Sucherman rat-a-tats his drumsticks on a nearby roadcase. Lawrence leans forward, stretches, and limbers up as only he can. Guitar tech Jimmy “JJ” Johnson confers with Shaw, while his fellow guitar tech Greg Mandelke pow-wows with cofounding guitarist/vocalist and lifelong Chicago resident James “JY” Young. Shaw and Young then face each other with guitars in hand, and instantly commence pogoing up and down to stay loose. A minute later, the new Styx original track “Overture” pumps out over the PA, the crowd roars, and Styx heads onstage, ready to drive headlong into “The Grand Illusion” once Sucherman seamlessly sets the segue.

Tonight’s show is extra special not only because it’s a hometown gig taking place about 40 miles south of Chicago, but it also honors the legacy of the band’s longtime producer and live front of house sound engineer, Chicago native Gary Loizzo. Loizzo, who turned 70 on August 16, was feted at a majestic party backstage 2 hours prior to showtime with a Styxified rendition of “Happy Birthday,” some wonderfully personalized gifts, and a cake that resembled a mixing board — plus the confirmation that he would indeed be joining the band onstage around 25 minutes into their set to sing lead vocals on a cover of “Bend Me, Shape Me,” a national Top 5 hit in 1968 for the Chicago-based band Gary was lead singer and guitarist for, The American Breed.

After “Lady” comes to its rousing end, Tommy steps up to his mike to set the stage for the audience: “We happen to be in the birthplace of the man we’re honored to bring up next,” he testifies. “He’s celebrating a milestone birthday — a man who’s been with us every mile of the way. Not just as a studio recording engineer, a good friend, a co-producer, and an out-front mixer — he comes to us with his own credentials. He was a rock star before we were even a band … ladies and gentlemen, Gary Loizzo!”

Gary emerges from the side of the stage, where he had been standing between production manager Brian Wong and monitor engineer Evan McElhinney. He high-tens with Tommy and then high-fives JY before addressing the crowd via his handheld mike: “You’re going to have to help me on this… here we go!” A vintage photo of Gary in a blue Nehru suit, culled from the cover of The American Breed’s 1968 album,Pumpkin, Powder, Scarlet & Green, is projected on the screen behind the band as Gary moves across the stage, sharing lines and phrases with each singing member of Styx all along the way, just like the pro that he is. It’s also deeply heartening to see how the hometown crowd sings along quite loudly on the choruses: “Bend me, shape me / any way you want me / Long as you love me / It’s all right!”

As the song ends to rousing applause, Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott, who stood next to me during the entire performance, sums it up quite succinctly: “Fantastic!” (Def Lep’s lead guitarist Phil Collen was also watching in the wings, as were members of Tesla, including Jeff Keith and Frank Hannon.) Coming offstage, Gary is immediately met by a succession of hugs and kudos before he finds his wife Diane, who is all smiles. After “Come Sail Away” ends the main set and right before the encore begins, Gary makes his way to the front of house mixing board area to personally thank his successor, Michelle Sabolchick Pettinato, for doing such a wonderful job. (Later, Gary says of Michelle, “I schooled her for 3 days straight, and she is just spectacular! I showed her all the nuances of the vocals and how to bring out the energy of the drums, and she gets it! She gets the essence. I’m really proud of her.”)

An hour later, Gary reflects on his performance while taking a well deserved seat in the backstage Styx production office. “It was fun going out there!” he says with a grin. “It’s a very confident thing because I know how good Styx is. I didn’t have to think about anything except to sing my part. And they were there! They were great! It was so comfortable. I hadn’t sung in front of 20,000 people for a long, long time — it’s been at least 45 years, when I sang in front of 40,000 at a Toys for Tots benefit in Louisville, Kentucky [at Freedom Hall in 1969].”

Todd enters the room and makes a beeline to Gary, saying, “You were f—ing great!” So does Lawrence. “And did you hear how loud the crowd was singing?” the keyboardist says to me when we step out into the hallway. “Outstanding! I loved it. I’ve loved that song since I first heard it when I was a kid. When I met Gary, I was so shocked, because the cadence and rhythm of his speaking voice didn’t connect with his singing voice on the record. And then one day, I heard the song playing over the PA, and it all just clicked. For us to do this song right, we really rehearsed it properly, so it was ready.”

JY and Tommy walk down the hall together, both clearly satisfied with the night’s events. “That was fun to see,” says JY of the crowd reaction. Agrees Tommy, “It was a hit single, and they were all singing along with it. And,” he laughs, “We didn’t f— it up! Man, it was a really good show. An American Breed apart.” And that’s Gary Loizzo for you: A rare breed, the likes of whom we will not see again.

If you want to find out more about Gary’s professional life and his work with Styx over the years, check out the three-part interview series, “Rare Breed: Gary Loizzo,” that’s posted in Styxology, our weekly Styx history column available exclusively to members of The Styx Lounge. Click on the JOINheader to learn how to become a member. More on-the-spot reports from the road are coming soon to Styxworld, so stay tuned!